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The fires that cleanse

Playful and pyrotechnic, Fallas sets a city alight with deafening frenzy

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / February 20, 2011

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VALENCIA, Spain — Fallas is not for the faint of heart. Or the easily startled. When we arrived in Valencia a few days before the climax of Spain’s most outrageous festival, Valencianos were setting off firecrackers with wild abandon. “Don’t worry,’’ a Fallas veteran reassured us when a small “petardo’’ exploded inches away. “It’s tradition.’’

Things would get only more bombastic. A few firecrackers tossed by small children cannot hold a Roman candle to daily choreographed explosions at City Hall, fire-spewing devils parading down darkened streets, or the premeditated arson that sends dozens of city squares up in synchronized flames.

Spain always forces us to jettison our routines and stretch our comfort zone as we embrace an 11 p.m. dinner hour followed by live music into the early morning. But Fallas takes that to an extreme. Here’s a diary of how, to borrow the subtitle of the classic “Dr. Strangelove,’’ we “learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.’’

March 18, 2 p.m. A madcap spectacle

Fallas makes a mockery of the calendar, with the days beginning around noon and ending around dawn. At midafternoon we joined the throngs milling from square to square to see the elaborate sculptured scenes — sweet ones for children and bigger, bawdier ones for adults — erected at every crossroads.

The origins of the Fallas festival are vague but seem to lie in the 18th century practice of Valencian carpenters celebrating spring by burning their winter lampposts. A century later, the lampposts had morphed into elaborate satirical figures that would all be burned in a main plaza on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19). New construction materials (foam core, polyester films stretched over wooden frames) have given the fallero artists flexibility to be ever more absurd, ever more outrageous, and to build up to 10 stories high. In 2010, the largest scene cost about $815,000. It took around a half hour to burn to the ground.

Artistic license runs wild. We encountered an image of President Obama flying through the air as Superman. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lounged in a hot tub with three cartoonishly buxom women. One ambitious tableau featuring Charlie Chaplin as a mad mechanic managed to skewer European history from the ancient Greeks (a parody of the Olympics) through the Middle Ages (horny Vikings run amok) to a particularly biting portrait of Valencia’s female mayor. Images quickly veered from political to politically incorrect. The falleros are equal opportunity offenders — no one’s sensitivities are spared.

The artists have their kitschy side as well. The large falla (as the giant tableaux are called) in front of City Hall even included a cherubic boy dunking a buñuelo in hot chocolate. Buñuelos — lumps of pumpkin-flavored fried dough — are the unofficial street food of Fallas. We bought some in the interest of research. Then we bought some more to compare.

March 18, 4 p.m., flower offering

As we walked from scene to scene, our working knowledge of European political scandals was stretched to the limit as we attempted to decipher the iconography of the social commentary — and get all the jokes. (Imagine a Spaniard watching “The Daily Show’’ with Jon Stewart.) Then we turned the corner onto Calle San Vicente and did a double-take.

Thousands of characters seemed to have stepped out of a Goya painting to march up the street carrying bouquets of pink, white, and red carnations. The men looked like 18th-century dandies, the women like ladies of the court in their full-skirted silk brocade dresses, hair combs, and mantillas. When they reached Plaza de la Virgen, they handed over their flower offerings to be affixed to the skirts of a 46-foot-high Madonna. Then they wept.

Solemn piety is as much a part of Fallas as sly wit.

March 19, 1:30 a.m., “Nit de Foc’

Streets and restaurants alike are crowded during Fallas, and getting a bite to eat requires patience. We were in no rush, though, as the “Night of Fire’’ would not begin until 1:30 a.m. The last and most spectacular of four nights of fireworks involved more than 11,000 pounds of shells, rockets, and concussion bombs. To stake out a prime viewing spot on one of the bridges over the dry riverbed park, we arrived early (1 a.m.).

March 19, 11 a.m., in the museum

Like the White House turkey that gets an annual reprieve, a few figures (called “ninots’’) are spared from the flames each year. We rose early by fiesta standards to visit the Museu Faller where these “pardoned ninots’’ are displayed along with historical photos and wonderfully gaudy Fallas posters. The ninots range from somber folkloric scenes to the 1956 tableau of camera-toting American Indians on a Spanish vacation to a 1971 lascivious take on “hippys.’’ Signage is multilingual, but the language of parody needs little translation.

March 19, 2 p.m., big boom

We really can’t explain the “mascletà,’’ a pyrotechnic extravaganza whose main purpose must be to sell hearing aids to the locals. Thousands of people crowd the streets around City Hall Plaza waiting for pyrotechnicians to light the fuse on approximately 1 million firecrackers and other concussive devices. They begin exploding with an innocuous pop-pop-pop and build to bone-shaking booms that reach sustained volumes of 120 decibels — several times the level required to induce hearing loss.

As directed, we kept our mouths open during the explosions so that our eardrums would not rupture. Even wearing earplugs, it was still like a rock concert where the pounding music became more visceral than aural, uniting the concertgoers into one throbbing mass of protoplasm.

Valencianos experience a similar mind meld during the mascletà. After five minutes of this intense bonding, most of us stood in numb silence as billows of gray smoke and bits of burnt paper blew across the square.

March 19, 7 p.m., cavalcade of fire

As the festival climax approached, we skipped the prancing horses of the Moors and Christians parade in favor of the devils, grim reapers, and jesters of the Fire Parade. This 45-minute “cavalcade’’ is all about playing with fire. Costumed figures whirl down the streets to the pounding rhythms of drum corps. Many swing scythes or carry hoses that spew streams of sparks overhead. Metal barricades keep onlookers at a distance, but it hardly matters as the dervishes prance to the edges of the streets to leer, spout fire, and cackle with maniacal glee.

March 19, 11 p.m., up in flames

The happy families and cartoon characters on the children’s tableaux are always the first to be put to the torch, starting around 10 p.m. But the main action and crowds were in City Hall Plaza. At 11, a girl in 18th-century costume lighted the fuse to burn the biggest children’s falla. Sparklers fizzed and flames spread from the base. The little Fallas princesses clutched hankies to their faces and wept for the cameras. Reflected flames danced on their brocaded dresses.

As in all fairy tales, the end arrived at midnight, when the large fallas began to go up in flames. The live national television broadcast focused on City Hall Plaza. The skin of the little boy with buñuelo and hot chocolate began to melt as flames jumped up from the base of the nine-story-high tableau. His grandmother cooking buñuelos, his father brandishing bottle rockets, his jealous sister — all gutted by flames.

It was a scene repeated in every square, reducing the fallas to heaps of glowing cinders as Valencianos banished their sins and vanities, their scandals and obsessions, and all their psychic pains. Las Fallas means “the fires,’’ and in Valencia they cleanse everything.

As we walked down the smoke-heavy avenues to our hotel, we lighted a few petardos. We had demons of our own to leave behind. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Boom.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, co-authors of Frommer’s “Spain Day by Day,’’ can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

How to get there
The most convenient flights from Boston to Valencia are with Iberia (and its codeshare partners, American and British Airways) with a change in Madrid, or on Air France with a change in Paris. Travelers planning on a Madrid stay can take the 90-minute high-speed train to Valencia.
What to do
Las Fallas begins in early March and reaches its peak in the days leading up to March 19. A full program of activities is available online at www.fallas.com. Most events are free. Expect to pay $1.40-$7 to explore some of the larger fallas up close.
Museu Faller
Plaza de Montolivet 4
011-34-963-525-478, ext. 4625
Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-8:30, Sun 10-3; adults $3, seniors and students $1.50.
Where to stay
Costs for lodging and meals reflect fiesta premium pricing.
Hostal Venecia
Plaza Ayuntamiento 3
011-34-963-524-267
www.hotelvenecia.com
This modest 54-room hotel is just off City Hall Plaza in the heart of the action. It will be loud during Fallas. Doubles $102-$205.
Hotel Melia Valencia
Calle Menorca 22
011-34-963-350-380
www.solmelia.com
Ultramodern business hotel sits just outside the old part of the city in tranquil setting near the City of Arts and Science. Doubles from $230.
Where to eat
La Sardinería
Calle Bordadores 10
011-34- 963-914-313
This tiny spot off Plaza de la Virgen redefines sardine cookery, with dishes like sardines steamed with orange and cinnamon, or grilled with red peppers and served with a fried egg. Main dishes $10-$17.
La Riuà
Calle del Mar 27
011-34-963-914-571
Central location and several set menus make this one of the most popular places to dine during Fallas. Fish dishes are better bets than paella. Main dishes $16-$25.
Arrop
Calle Almirante 14
011-34-963-925-566
www.arrop.com
Elegant fine dining on contemporary Spanish cooking amid Moorish ruins beneath a hip hotel offers a break from the Fallas crowds. Main dishes $36-$41, tasting menu $101.